A 2020 U.S. Census undercount could have potentially large ripple effects for everything the census determines — from how congressional seats are distributed around the country to where hundreds of billions of federal dollars are spent.
And Nevada could be especially at risk. The Commerce Department, at the Justice Department’s request, has approved a question on citizenship to the 2020 census — a move that critics say could weaken participation by immigrants who fear that the government could use the information against them. Multiple states, cities and organizations are suing the Trump administration to block the change. Nevada is not one of them.
The citizenship question is “something we’re really concerned about,” said Jared Busker, a policy expert for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, which is working on increasing participation in the 2020 Census via a statewide media outreach campaign. “We are trying to be preemptive and work with members who are respected and known in those communities that might be fearful of the citizenship question, and talk to them about that before the census postcard even comes out.”
Nevada has a large population of foreign-born residents. According to the American Immigration Council, nearly one in five Nevada residents are foreign-born, while almost one in six residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent.
In 2015, undocumented immigrants comprised of 36 percent of the immigrant population and about 7 percent of the total state population in 2014. Between 2010 and 2014, 254,400 people in Nevada, including 117,210 born in the United States, lived with at least one undocumented family member.
Robert Lang, a professor of Urban Affairs at UNLV and an expert on population dynamics and the census, says the citizenship question would undercount urban areas with high immigration and a significant foreign-born population who are on their way to citizenship, while granting over-representation to rural and nonminority districts.
“Nevada’s more vulnerable because it has more foreign-born, and it has both a lot of undocumented and documented foreign-born, and so you’d risk under-reporting the population of the state, but in particular Southern Nevada,” Lang said.
“It will drive people away, they won’t answer it. Even if they are here with documentation, they might be concerned about revealing themselves or their family, given the current political climate,” Lang said.
The citizenship question also does not differentiate between documented and undocumented immigration status.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross— who oversees the Census Bureau and has the discretionary authority to add questions to census forms that federal law requires all U.S. households to complete — approved adding the question to census forms in March. Ross has maintained that the Justice Department needs responses from the question to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.
As part of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance efforts on the state level, the organization is working with Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, D-North Las Vegas, on a joint resolution by which the Nevada Legislature would “urge Congress to require the United State Census Bureau to ensure a fair 2020 national census.”
“It definitely puts Nevada in a more difficult spot than other states, so we really have to ensure that we make this investment today so we can receive that federal funding later,” said Busker. “Just in Nevada, we are estimated to receive $4.6 billion dollars of federal funding.”
Over 16 programs in Nevada are directly tied to federal funds which are distributed every year based on headcount, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Section 8 housing, Title 1 grants to local schools, the National School Lunch Program, special education grants, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and low-income home energy assistance.
While the worry is that the legal status of immigrants will be released to federal agencies like ICE, legally, the Privacy Act of 1974 states that no agency can disclose an individuals information to any person or other agency without their consent, and the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002 prohibits the disclosure of demographic data or information collected by the Census for non statistical purposes, said Stewart Chang an expert in Immigration Law and a professor at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law.
Regardless of these protections, said Chang, the citizenship question will still probably chill responses from immigrants who may fear the information will be used against them. Many people might not know or trust that they are protected.
In the past, census data has been used to target specific populations. Information from the 1940 Census was secretly used to locate and intern Japanese Americans in camps during World War II.
“There is a history of it,” Lang said. “It’s not an irrational concern, in that it has happened in U.S. history and even if you didn’t know it happened, and even if you did know you were protected, why err on the side of giving them full information? Why not just be hard to find and not get counted?”
Population counts from the census affect how congressional seats are apportioned, in turn determining how many Electoral College votes each state gets, and even slight miscounts have shifted political representation.
In the 2000 census, only federal employees working abroad were counted, leaving out more than 11,000 Mormon missionaries from Utah. Population figures afterward showed that Utah missed qualifying for the 435th and final seat in the House of Representative by 856 people, which then went to North Carolina.
Nevada gained a congressional seat— for a total of four— after the 2010 census and could be in a position to gain a fifth following a complete census count.
Jeff Hardcastle, the Nevada State Demographer, said a more immediate consequence of an undercount would be the state losing out on federal funding. The exact dollar amount of federal funding for the state in 2015 was $1,611 per person.
“For every person not counted the state potentially loses out on $1,611, and that’s every year. For ten years,” Hardcastle said.
Earlier this year a multi-state lawsuit challenging the 2020 census citizenship question lead by New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood was allowed to move forward by a federal judge. Attorney General’s have the broad authority to involve states in federal lawsuits.
Through a spokesman, Democratic candidate for Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford said “a question of this magnitude is incredibly concerning, especially in states like Nevada. What’s even more concerning is the determination of a federal judge that there is ‘strong’ evidence that the Trump administration acted in bad faith when adding the question.” However, when asked if he would join other states in challenging the citizenship question, Ford’s campaign said they still needed to look into other lawsuits and evaluate the legal arguments.